Seven Magazine – Sunday Telegraph, 26 June 2011
The Prisoner of 84 Charing Cross Road
Forty years ago, a New York woman’s correspondence with a London bookshop became a publishing sensation. But her success was bittersweet, writes Monica Porter
Forty years ago this month saw the publication here of a slim volume by a little-known, middle-aged American writer, Helene Hanff. Called 84 Charing Cross Road, it was one of the most unlikely books ever to become a bestseller and cult classic – simply a collection of letters between the impecunious book-lover Hanff, in New York, and the staff of Marks & Co, an antiquarian bookshop in London.
The correspondence spanned two decades – from Britain’s post-war austerity to the height of the Swinging Sixties – and was full of warmth, humour and humanity. If our notion of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America means anything at all, it is embodied in the pages of Hanff’s little book.
It all began in October 1949 as a straightforward business correspondence. Having seen an advert for Marks and Co, describing them as specialists in out-of-print books, Hanff wrote to them with a wish-list of titles she’d been unable to acquire in New York. ‘I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books,’ she explained. ‘If you have clean second-hand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?’
The order was dealt with by the shop’s manager, Frank Doel, who sent her some of the items she wanted and promised to look out for the others. He addressed his letter ‘Dear Madam’ and signed it ‘Yours faithfully, FPD.’ All very formal, very British. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Hanff’s next letter enclosed payment, praised the ‘soft vellum and cream-coloured pages’ of the books, which put to shame her ‘orange-crate bookshelves’, and ended with a PS: ‘I hope “madam” doesn’t mean over there what it means over here.’
She had an insatiable hunger for the classic works of English literature – Jane Austen, John Donne, Chaucer, Samuel Pepys. She sent the shop further orders and more books were dispatched to her Manhattan bedsit. Then in December she had a surprise for Marks & Co. Having heard about the rigorous food rationing in effect in Britain, an appalled Hanff sent the staff ‘a small Christmas present’ of foodstuffs most Brits hadn’t seen for years, including a large ham. This was hastily followed by a short note: ‘I just noticed on your last invoice it says “B. Marks, M. Cohen. Proprietors.” ARE THEY KOSHER? I could rush a tongue over. ADVISE PLEASE!’
On Charing Cross Road, ‘FPD’ and his half-dozen staff were deeply moved by this gesture from a woman they had never met, 3500 miles away. At Easter she delighted them again, with a parcel containing real eggs – their first in many years of making do with the unloved powdered variety.
And so began a more personal, more affectionate trans-Atlantic relationship. Soon Hanff was exchanging letters not only with Doel, but with his warm-hearted Irish wife Nora, as well as the rest of the team at Marks & Co, getting to know about their lives and families. And they repaid her generosity with gifts of their own.
Disarmed by her quirky, engaging jocularity, the letters from the business-like Doel grew less formal…although it wasn’t until 1952 that he finally addressed her as ‘Dear Helene’. For her, he became ‘Frankie’: ‘Now listen Frankie, it’s going to be a long cold winter and I babysit in the evenings and I need reading matter. Don’t sit around, go find me some books!’
She yearned to visit London, to see ‘the England of English literature’. But as the years passed, Hanff never could never afford to make the trip. Single and childless, she lived a hand-to-mouth existence as a writer of children’s history books, TV scripts and magazine articles, and regarded herself essentially as a failed playwright. Her first proper book, in 1961, was Underfoot in Show Business, an entertaining account of how she had failed to ‘crash the theatre’ with her string of unproduced plays.
The long-running correspondence with ‘her’ bookshop, and especially with Doel, gave her a treasured bond with the city she seemed destined never to see. When, in January 1969, she received a letter from Marks & Co informing her that Doel had died of peritonitis following a ruptured appendix, she was devastated. To a friend embarking on a trip to London that spring, she wrote: ‘The blessed man who sold me all my books died a few months ago. But Marks & Co is still there. If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me! I owe it so much.’
The epistolary book chronicling her relationship with the shop was born out of her deep sense of loss. Published in America in 1970, it was an instant success. Unexpectedly, almost inexplicably, Hanff was catapulted out of obscurity to be feted in the media as a new literary star. Fan letters poured in to her tiny apartment on East 72nd Street.
In the UK the book was acquired by Andre Deutsch and published the following June. And that month – helped by a modest advance from Deutsch and a generous fee from Reader’s Digest for an article about her fan mail – the diminutive, straight-talking Hanff at long last stepped off a plane at Heathrow to enjoy five busy, blissful weeks in the city of her dreams. Her only sadness was that Marks & Co had recently closed down. She made a pilgrimage to the empty, dusty shop.
The enthusiastically reviewed 84 Charing Cross Road was even more of a hit here than in the US. It won Hanff a huge British fan base, and over the course of the following years turned into a phenomenon. In 1975 it was adapted for television as a BBC Play for Today, starring Anne Jackson and Frank Finlay. Then in 1981-82 James Roose-Evans’ award-winning stage version was a West End hit which ran for 16 months (and became one of the most frequently produced plays around the world, by theatre companies both professional and amateur).
But Hanff really hit the jackpot a few years later, when Hollywood came calling. Producer Mel Brooks acquired the property as a star vehicle for his wife Anne Bancroft. Doel would be played by Anthony Hopkins. Could things get any better?
It was at this point that our paths crossed. I was a London-based journalist, the mother of two small sons and married to a City lawyer, but in the mid-1980s we had a two-year sojourn in America while my husband ran his firm’s New York office. He commuted into Manhattan each day while I was stuck in Greenwich, Connecticut with the kids. It was a beautiful place, but very boring, as I wasn’t into tennis, yachting or coffee mornings.
My first book had been published in 1981, but since then each successive project had failed to get off the ground. Now, tied down domestically, cut off from my contacts in London and with nothing to inspire me in my surroundings, I felt myself sinking into oblivion. My only refuge was the wonderful local library, where I came upon 84 Charing Cross Road. I was so moved by it I sent Hanff a letter, explaining that I was a fellow writer and asking whether we might meet sometime. Before long I received a reply, suggesting I call her to fix a date. She was finishing a book and would be free in a couple of weeks.
We met at Rumpelmayer’s, an elegant old café on Central Park South. In her gravelly, smoker’s voice she regaled me with anecdotes about New York life, and I relished her acerbic wit and self-deprecating humour. She said she received countless letters from people claiming to be writers and wanting to meet her, who turned out to be amateurs and shams. She now refused to see such people. But she could tell I was a genuine writer, because mine had been a ‘writer’s letter’. Even this small compliment acted on me like a tonic.
I was in my mid-thirties, she was nearing seventy. I had a family, she was alone and fiercely independent. I was at a low ebb in my career, she was at the height of hers. Yet, opposites though we were, we shared some common threads in our lives.
When I told her about my stagnating career and fear that time was passing me by, she empathised because she had been through the same thing, and curiously, at exactly the same age. She described how, when she was 34, she woke up in a sweat one night at the terrifying thought that she still hadn’t had a play on Broadway.
When I complained about how remote and unhelpful literary agents were, she snorted in agreement. Her own agent, she said, wouldn’t take her calls for years, as she wasn’t considered ‘big enough’. Even after ‘84’ became an international bestseller the agent remained elusive. ‘It wasn’t until I got a Hollywood deal that she’d finally speak to me.’
We discussed the difficulty of coming up with good ideas for books. And as someone who had written many first-person articles and whose first book was autobiographical, I warmed to her self-mocking admission that ‘I can only write about things that happen to me, and nothing ever happens to me.’
Later, walking down the street together, I explained my personal dilemma. Like her, I was a passionate urbanite, but I couldn’t come to Manhattan much during the week because of my sons’ schedules, and couldn’t come on weekends because my husband, who spent all week in the city, needed the weekends in Connecticut to soothe his frayed nerves.
‘There’s no dilemma,’ she declared. ‘Just leave a note for your husband on Friday evening, saying “See you Monday morning!”’ Helene was contemptuous of the suburbs and couldn’t understand why I’d chosen to live there in the first place. ‘You can raise children perfectly well right here,’ she insisted, as we stood stranded in a battle zone of ferocious traffic outside the Plaza Hotel.
When her book Q’s Legacy – about the influence on her of the literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch – came out in 1985, naturally I read it with interest. But I was disappointed. It covered much the same ground as her earlier books. Still, I arranged to call on her at home one day, so she could sign my copy.
Ever unassuming about her literary talent, Helene was under no illusions about the book. Her inscription reads: ‘For Monica Porter – a young fellow writer – in the hope that she’ll live to write far better books than this one.’ I was touched by her humility.
I met her once or twice more and it was always sheer pleasure to escape from the bland ‘burbs’ and talk shop with Helene in the midst of her beloved Big Apple. I felt there was a meaningful connection between us. Her encouragement and humour injected me with hope and helped me through my ‘mid-thirties crisis’.
I last saw her in the summer of 1986, shortly before my family’s return to London. We chatted about the film adaptation of ‘84’, due for release early the following year. ‘Do you know,’ she rasped in a tone of incredulity, ‘the world premiere has been scheduled for a Friday the 13th?’ She let out a laugh. It’s gotta be a first in Hollywood history!’
I saw the film when it opened in London. Afterwards I wrote to Helene, praising it, saying it had moved me to tears. But I wondered whether Bancroft hadn’t been miscast. She replied with a gentle rebuke: ‘If you were moved to tears, it was because of Bancroft!’ Of course she was right.
We lost touch eventually. Then one day in April 1997 I opened the paper to find her obituary. She’d had diabetes for many years and died as a result of complications from the illness, a week short of her 80th birthday. Sadly, all the fame and accolades bestowed on her over the years had not given her financial security. By her own account she was broke in her final years, and accepted a grant from an author’s charity to help with hospital bills.
Even when she had money, Hanff had given it away. Sheila Wheeler, Doel’s daughter, now a retired school-teacher living in Muswell Hill, north London, tells me the writer made sure they received a share of her royalties following Frank’s death. ‘We saw her as an American fairy godmother when I was growing up,” she says. ‘I pictured her as someone tremendously rich and glamorous, looking like Lauren Bacall. It was a shock, when I finally met her, to see how wrong I had been.’
In June 1971, Andre Deutsch’s publicist was Carmen Callil – later to become a stalwart of British publishing. She recalls the Hanff of 40 years ago as ‘a tiny, bright woman dressed completely in red, white and blue in honour of the Union Jack, so devoted was she to everything to do with England and English literature.’
By a happy circumstance of fate, today 84 Charing Cross Road is in print as a Virago Modern Classic – kept alive for a new generation by the publishing company founded by Callil herself. ‘The series is devoted to the best in literature by women,’ she told me recently, ‘and Helene Hanff so loved books, and was such a formidable character herself, she fits perfectly on the list with the other writers.’
All very true. But the self-effacing Helene would doubtless be astounded that her little ‘84’ is today considered a classic. I can just hear that throaty, incredulous laugh.